Serious fun – on using jokes/fables to explain academic and political concepts (cows, au pairs and snow ploughs)

We all need better “cognitive maps,” as Freddie Jameson called them all the way back in 1984, in his pivotal article “Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism.”

Cognitive maps are devices that help us orientate ourselves, understand all the blizzards of stimuli, ideas, messages, signs, whatever you want to call them. Those who would keep us confused try to burn our maps, make us mistrust them more than we should, offer phony ones etc. It all becomes a proper hall of mirrors while on acid kinda thing.

So, being able to explain these “maps” via jokes and pithy sayings is kinda crucial. For instance, I’ve never been able to properly descend into my old favoured self-righteous rages and tanties since learning the simple expression “when you point one finger at someone else, you point three back at yourself” (or at least, that’s what I tell myself).

So, finally, on with the point of it.

  1. On “cows” there’s all those “capitalism is when you have two cows, you sell the milk… communism is when the state steals your cows, shoots one of them, puts you in a gulag…” etc etc See here. After the Enron scandal, we got this

Enronism: You have two cows. You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at the bank, then execute a debt/equity swap with an associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with a tax exemption for five cows. The milk rights of the six cows are transferred via an intermediary to a Cayman Island company secretly owned by your CFO who sells the rights to all seven cows back to your listed company. The annual report says the company owns eight cows, with an option on six more.

2. On au pairs – there’s the (not safe for work) joke about Little Johnny (see below).

3. And now, on snow ploughs and sociology, we have this, via my brainiac friend Loukas Cristodoulou.

Explaining sociology using snow ploughing.

Structuralism: society clears a path in the snow. Everyone walks that path.

Interactionism: people choose where they walk, and we call those things ‘paths’.

Functionalism: society clears a path to protect society’s functioning. The snow plough is driven by a man.

Marxism: men make paths, but not of their own choosing.

Anthony Giddens’ Structuration: people walk and others follow, and that makes a path. The path is a structure that shapes where people walk, but it is at the same time created and reproduced by people’s choices. Vote for Tony Blair.

Post-structuralism: the definition of ‘path’ in the snow is based on our cultural expectations and whether we are wearing boots or skis.

That not-safe-for-work Little Johnny joke-

Little Johnny came home from school one day and said to his father, “Dad, what can you tell me about politics? I have to learn about it for school tomorrow.”

The father thought some and said, “Okay, son, the best way I can describe politics is to use an analogy. Let’s say that I’m capitalism because I’m the breadwinner. Your mother will be government because she controls everything, our maid will be the working class because she works for us, you will be the people because you answer to us, and your baby brother will be the future. Does that help any?”

Little Johnny said, “Well, Dad, I don’t know, but I’ll think about what you said.”

Later that night, after everyone had gone to bed, Johnny was woken up by his brother’s crying. Upon further investigation, he found a dirty diaper. So, he went down the hall to his parent’s bedroom and found his father’s side of the bed empty and his mother wouldn’t wake up. Then he saw a light on in the guest room down the hall, and when he reached the door, he saw through the crack that his father was in bed with the maid.

Because he couldn’t do anything else, he turned and went back to bed.

The next morning, he said to his father at the breakfast table, “Dad, I think I understand politics much better now.”

“Excellent, my boy,” he answered, “What have you learned?”

Little Johnny thought for a minute and said, “I learned that capitalism is screwing the working class, while the government is sound asleep ignoring the people, and the future’s full of shit.

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